MOLT, Mont. – The skies had turned dark and Will Downs, his brother Weston and father Kevin, knew the race was on. It was Aug. 11 and pea harvest had just wrapped up. The crew was heading back to the farm with their equipment in high gear. If it was going to hail, which the clouds indicated it could, then they needed to hustle and get as much equipment under cover as they could.
“We had only been home about 10 minutes. We put the auger away and got two pick-ups undercover before the storm hit,” Will said.
And hit it did.
Hail ranging from ping-pong to baseball size pulverized the Downs farm, hammering roofs, breaking windows and unfortunately, flattening crops.
Crops weren’t the only thing that met Mother Nature’s wrath. In the hours following the severe storm, 11,000 water fowl were found dead on Big Lake, which lies just a few miles from the Downs farm. This was a storm for the record books.
In the aftermath of the storm, all the Downs family could really do is assess the damage. The latest tally indicates seven windows and five windshields were broken. Will is in the processes of remodeling a historic family home and one of the new windows he had just recently installed was shattered. The tin roofed buildings have taken a beating and the ones with shingled roofs, well they are in tough shape too.
“It’s going to be a lot of work after harvest,” stated Will.
That’s the thing, this storm could not have hit at a worse time. Pea harvest had just finished and the Downs looked across their land at one of the best wheat and barley crops they had ever grown. Preliminary harvests of their wheat fields indicated they had grown 60 bushels an acre in some areas, with other areas averaging closer to 70 or 80 bushels an acre.
“We’ve always been told this is 40 bushel an acre country, so we were pretty proud of this crop,” Will expressed.
Two fields of seed wheat from Northern Seed lay destroyed, as does another whole field of winter wheat. The Downs never got a chance to even test their barley because the entire crop ended up hailed out. All said, 1,200 acres of cropland was decimated.
Will and his family haven’t run hard numbers yet, but they estimate the storm cost them around $400,000. Of course, crop insurance will help some, and if they are lucky, it will cover most of the input costs into the lost crops, but any revenue or profit that could have been generated is a total loss.
“It’s just one of those deals,” Will said.
Somehow, despite this crippling blow, the young producer manages to find the positive. About one third of the Downs operation lays 10 miles to the south of their home base, and those fields hardly got a drop of rain. Will also pointed out a similar devastating hailstorm hit producers in the Molt area last year, but the Downs farm was spared.
“We got lucky last year. We have neighbors that have been hit twice,” explained Will.
The Downs family is just trying to move forward the best they can. They are currently busy wrapping up the last of their wheat harvest and Will predicts they should be done by the first part of September, weather depending of course.
“I farm because it is fun. We always strive to be better farmers. At least we got a chance to see that what we are doing is working,” said Will.
All in all, Will and his family are thankful. They took an incredible hit, but like most producers, they will get up and dust off their knees because they have a job to do. Harvest must be finished and then there will be buildings that need to be repaired. Will and his family continue to prove that nothing, not even Mother Nature, can slow down Montana farmers.